Belle van Zuylen (Isabelle de Charrière) : “I have no talent for subordination” 1

Dutch feminist philosopher, writer, composer (Zuilen NL, 20-10-1740 – Colombier CH 27-12-1805)

266px-Isabelle_de_Charrière_-_Quentin_de_La_Tour  Portret by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1771)


There is a castle in Zuylen, near Utrecht in the Netherlands. In that castle lived Belle van Zuylen untill she was fourteen. Later she moved to Colombier near Neuchâtel in Switserland. At home she had private lessons in French, Latin, English, German, Italian, Music, Science, and Mathematics. She wrote mostly in French. (Note 2).

Intellectual context

Belle van Zuylen corresponded with many intellectuals and was befriended with the (younger) Scottish philosopher Benjamin Constant. In her letters to him she discussed the Batavian and French revolutions. She was inspired by and sympathetic towards these revolutions, but was critical towards many aspects of them. She was also inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment.

Not the “populus

Unlike some other republican thinkers, she did not think that freedom was guaranteed by equal rights. According to her, freedom was mostly guaranteed by a stabile constitutional government and a strong check on the government by the public. She thought that the public should not be represented as one voice, one mass of people, or the populus, by a leader. If this is done, minorities and even majorities can be overlooked. This also happened in the Revolutions by ignoring the voices of women, slaves and workers and refusing them citizens’ rights.

But the “publicus

By contrast, the public, should be understood by the plurality of specific public voices: the publicus. Having different voices within the public and political debate implies that different interests and ideas will be represented. Mind you, they are still public voices, not private voices. Belle van Zuylen insisted that the public debate requires some distance. So people speak from their public capacity, not from their personal identity. (Note 2)

Using the “publicus” against current populism

It seems to me that this attention to the publicus, the plurality of public voices, remains crucial in politics. Particularly, now when we see the populism flourishing in Europe and in the United States. Indeed, we should be alert that political leaders do not represent us all as “Henk and Ingrid” as the Dutch politician Geert Wilders for instance suggests. Before you know it, other voices are not represented in the public debate. And the only way to prevent this is not voting, but being present yourself in the public debate.  Hurray for the internet which makes this possible!

Rianne Voet, 23-10-2018

Note 1) Sometimes you can book a tour and a lecture on her at the castle by Joke Hermsen Information and reservations:; 00-31-30-2440255.
Note 2) See also modern philosophers such as Hannah Arendt and Richard Sennett about this issue. For a very elegant essay on this inspiring me to this blog, see Judith A. Vega Isabelle de Charière en de kritiek van de Verlichting, Klement 1999). She also wrote a PhD about her.






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